The Bund by the Numbers: The Ebbs and Flows of a Jewish Radical Party

Joshua Meyers

The best days in research are those in which we find ourselves surprised by what we find. I’m writing a book about the Jewish Labor Bund in the Russian Revolution—a time when the party would reach its greatest degree of influence—and had already had a number of those days when I left the archive shaking my head in disbelief. To be honest, after working on this subject for the better part of a decade, I had begun to think the surprises were behind me. But one day, while typing up my notes, I came across an fascinating statistic about the membership of the Bund. The Bund, as it is generally known, represents one of the boldest attempts in the past two centuries to reimagine the relationship between Jews and the state. Seeking not only to transform Jewish existence but that of the entire world, the party strove to reconstruct the Russian Empire as a federal union of autonomous socialist republics, with cultural autonomy provided to minorities. In doing so, it positioned itself as a force in Jewish life, expanding the political arena to be more democratic in nature and driving the creation of a new political and economic discourse in Yiddish. 1 1 Zvi Gitelman, “A Century of Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: The Legacy of the Bund and the Zionist Movement,” in The Emergence of Modern Jewish Politics: Bundism and Zionism in Eastern Europe, Zvi Gitelman, ed., (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 12-14; David E. Fishman, “The Bund and Modern Yiddish Culture,” in The Emergence of Modern Jewish Politics: Bundism and Zionism in Eastern Europe, Zvi Gitelman, ed., (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 107, 111.

The Bund is often portrayed as one of the largest political movements in Jewish Russia, so I was shocked to find that in 1910, the party had a mere 609 members—down from approximately 35,000 five years earlier. I knew the party had had its ebbs and flows, yet this plunge in membership outstripped anything I had imagined. It also left me with questions. How did the party’s collapse from 1905 to 1910 compare to the years leading up to Russia’s first revolution, and how did the party recover? How did the Bund’s membership compare to the membership of other Jewish parties—especially the Bund’s great rival, the Zionist Organization of Russia, but also labor Zionists, Sejmists, and radicals of other stripes? I feel the term “crisis” is overused in Jewish history, yet in describing Russian Jewry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—downwardly mobile, legally persecuted, and increasingly desperate—it seems appropriate. Russian Jewry was (and remains today) a vibrant and dynamic community. The speed with which parties could rise, fall, and rise again reflects the pressures the community was under, resulting in both sober caution and daring, desperate dreams. What follows is not a full history of Russian Jewish politics—it is not even a full history of the Bund. Rather, it is an accounting of the Bund’s history according to membership statistics, which reveals the tenuous nature of Jewish politics in this period.

Emerging at a time when class and ethnic identity were paramount, the Bund advanced a notion that today might be seen as an early articulation of intersectionality. The party believed that the liberation of Jewish workers required liberating them both as Jews and workers. If conventional Marxists, who were heavily, even overly focused on class, sought to defend the rights of workers only as workers while leaving them vulnerable to antisemitism, Zionists made the opposite mistake, freeing Jews as Jews but leaving them persecuted on the basis of class. By contrast, the Bund, borrowing heavily from the Austrian Marxist tradition, advanced the notion of national-cultural autonomy. Though remaining committed to the idea that Jews must be entirely economically and politically united with the workers of other nations, it hoped to carve out a distinct space for Russian Jews to develop their own culture. It fought to build distinct school systems, community councils, theater groups, and newspapers. However unorthodox in its ideas, it remained a Marxist party; thoroughly anti-religious, it opposed the usage of Hebrew in favor of Yiddish as the Jewish national language and encouraged the development of Jewish identity on ethnic rather than religious grounds.

Scholars have often made much of the supposedly superior quality of the Bund’s membership, emphasizing that becoming a member of the Zionist Organization required only a small donation (the purchase of a “Shekel”) while becoming a member of the Bund required a candidate to undergo careful vetting by veteran members after they had first proven their dedication to the party. 2 2 Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia: From its Origins to 1905 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972), 239. However, there is scant evidence to suggest this is true. Though membership in the Bund did come with an assumption that one would pay dues and participate in party activities such as meetings and protests, it is not clear how strictly this was enforced. Not a single memoir refers to any careful vetting procedure taking place. In fact, such careful vetting would have been impossible at the rate the party grew—rocketing from 4,500 to 30,000 in a mere four years. Moreover, the rapid collapse of the Bund in the years that followed calls into question the devotion of many of those who did join the party. Certainly, some people may have supported political parties and their policies without becoming members. But given the low bar for Bund membership, it’s likely that many simply weren’t sufficiently interested in politics during the Bund’s membership ebbs. Indeed, at many junctures in the Bund’s history, Bundist leaders would openly deride the dedication of their members. The notion of a vetted and uniquely loyal Bund membership appears to be a myth. Though the Bund did have its share of remarkably devoted members, so too did its rivals; few have accused the Zionists or the Orthodox of being insufficiently devoted to their cause. The claim that the Bund’s membership was of a manifestly different caliber than that of its rivals seems to have been the Bund’s own nostalgic creation—the act of a party that, in the aftermath of World War Two, saw itself as having lost the battle for the Jewish future to the Zionists, and chose instead to dedicate itself to the struggle for the Jewish past.

The Bund was founded in 1897 by organizations in Vilna, Minsk, Warsaw, Białystok, Minsk, and Vitebsk. 3 3 V. A. Tsolgin, “Pervii Sezd Bunda, Revoliutsionoe Dvizhenie Sredi Evreev. First Collection, Moscow, 1930. Published in Bund: Dokumenti i Materiali, 1894-1921 (Rosspen: Moscow, 2010), pp. 59-67. With the exception of Warsaw, all these cities lay in the so-called Northwestern Provinces of the Russian Empire, a territory sandwiched between Great Russia, Congress Poland, and the Baltic Sea. This region—where the Litvak dialect of Yiddish dominated, pepper was the preferred seasoning, and Hasidism was often viewed askance—colored the makeup of the Bund’s leadership. One Bundist even noted that the few non-Litvaks in the party’s senior ranks were culturally out of place: “impulsive, temperamental, with a lively imagination [and] a great warmth of heart” in contrast to the “dry, cold, skeptic, sober, misnagdish litvaks.” 4 4 R. Abramovitch, In Tsvey Revolutsies: Di Geshikhte fun a Dor, vol. 1 (New York: Workmens Circle, 1944), 195, 198. This region also represented some of the poorest Jewish communities in Russia, providing the new party ample opportunity for activism to improve their members’ economic conditions. Over the next three years the Bund would organize some 312 strikes, 90% of which were considered successful, leading to a rapid rise in party membership. 5 5 John Mill, Pionern un Boyer: Memuarn, vol. 2, Boyer (New York: Der Wecker, 1949), 86; J. H. L. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 44. By 1900, the Bund had 4,500 members and claimed an additional 28,000 workers included in its affiliated unions. That same year, the Bund would begin expanding into Poland and Ukraine. 6 6 Nora Levin, While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917 (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), 270. This expansion would see the Bund’s numbers continue to grow, rising to an estimated 30,000 in 1904. 7 7 Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia, 239. For comparison, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which the Bund had helped found in 1898 and left in 1903 when it refused to allow the Bund federal status in the party, had only 8,400 members at the start of 1905. 8 8 Levin, While Messiah Tarried, 319.

In the history of the Bund, the Revolution of 1905, itself the result of the Russo-Japanese War, marks the party’s apogee until 1917. As Imperial authority retreated, the Bund took over its role, gaining unparalleled power within the Jewish community. It even functioned as a state within the state, being called upon to adjudicate divorces and business disputes. 9 9 Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia, 240, 309. Simultaneously, the Bund’s 1,100 armed militiamen played a prominent role in defending against antisemitic violence through the revolution. As a result, the Bund’s membership soared, possibly reaching as high as 35,000. 10 10 Frank Wolff, Neue Welten in der Deuen Welt: Die Transnationale Geschikhte des Algemein Judischen Arbeitersbundes, 1897-1947 (Köln: Böhlau Verlag), 18.

However, the Bund was not the only political organization appealing to Russian Jewry. Though the Bund had gained the admiration of many Jews for its role in combating the pogroms, it did not gain their loyalty. The devastating pogroms of 1905, which killed hundreds, drove many Jews away from the cosmopolitan vision of the Bund and towards the more nationalist radicalism of the labor Zionist parties proliferating at the time. 11 11 Scott Ury, Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011), 263. Already in 1905, the territorialist Zionist Socialist Labor Party—interested in building a Jewish homeland, though with no particular interest in Palestine— could claim 27,000 members, while Poalei Zion—a group of Marxist Zionists looking to build a Jewish workers’ republic in Palestine—had 16,600. Both of these parties espoused variations on a labor Zionist ideology. By 1907, Poalei Zion would overtake the Zionist Socialists to position itself as the largest Jewish socialist organization in Russia. 12 12 Levin, While Messiah Tarried, 408. Yet the long-term political victors of the revolution would be the Zionist Organization of Russia, the Russian franchise of the World Zionist Organization. Often referred to simply as “Zionists,” the Zionist Organization of Russia had long benefited from its inherently ecumenical approach to politics. Advancing the nebulously defined idea that the Jewish future required the establishment of some sort of Jewish homeland, ideally but not necessarily in the land that Jews call Zion, it drew on a broad swath of Jewish society. Although dominated by liberals, it also found ways to include socialists, secularists, and rabbis. At times this proved a liability, presenting ample opportunity for internal strife compared with the unified vision of the Bund, but it also allowed the organization to reach a far broader swath of society. In times of strife, Bundists ruefully acknowledged that Zionism offered a means of engaging in political thought without “the risk of entanglement in the dangerous affairs of the Russian political struggle.” 13 13 Gregory Aronson, “Ideological trends among Russian Jews,” in Russian Jewry (1860-1917), edited by Jacob Frumkin, Gregory Aronson, Alexis Goldenveiser, translated by Maria Ginsburg (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1966), 154. In 1905, however, the Zionist movement was still reeling from Theodore Herzl’s death in 1904. Moreover, it remained uncertain in its attitude towards Russian internal affairs, debating whether a movement dedicated to Zion ought to engage in Russian politics. However, the organization swiftly found its feet and advanced the “Helsingfors Programme,” committing the Zionist Organization to the pursuit of Jewish rights in Russia. As many Jews gave up on revolution, the decade following Herzl’s death saw the Zionist Organization of Russia maintain a membership that fluctuated around 70,000 for the next decade and may have reached 100,000 on the eve of World War One. 14 14 David Vital, Zionism: The Formative Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 493-494; David Vital, Zionism: The Crucial Phase, 35-54.

As these movements grew, the Bund found itself in decline. The end of the Revolution saw an explosion of antisemitic violence; many Jews who had once supported the Bund now decided “that Tsarist rule, however flawed and problematic it may have been, was far better than no rule at all.” 15 15 Ury, Barricades and Banners, 265. Even Raphael Abramovitch, one of the Bund’s paladins, acknowledged that “one became tired of the revolution.” Many of its members drifted away from politics entirely. 16 16 Abramovitch, In Tsvey Revolutsies, 314-5. 33,890 members took part in party elections in August 1906, but only 25,468 could be found in April 1907. 17 17 Vladimir Levin, “Jewish Socialist Parties in Russia in the Period of Reaction,” in The Revolution of 1905 and Russia’s Jews, Stefani Hoffman and Ezra Mendelsohn, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 112. As drastic as this decline was, worse was yet to come. The appointment of Pyotr Stolypin as Prime Minister of Russia led to a period of mass repression of radical organizations in Russia. Bundist A. Litvak witnessed firsthand the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, yet it was the Stolypin period he recalled as “the bad years” in his memoirs. 18 18 A. Litvak, Geklibene Shriftn (New York, 1945), 412. Against the new wave of repression, the Bund’s membership collapsed, and many local organizations disappeared entirely. By the winter of 1907-1908, the Bund had only twelve local organizations where it had once counted dozens. Many Bundists left for America, while others simply stepped away from party life. 19 19 M. G. Rafes, Dva Goda Revoliutsii na Ukraine (Evoliutsiia i Raskol Bunda), (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo, 1920), 17-8. This was in no way restricted to those who joined the party in the heady days of revolution, whose commitment might have been more situational: engendered by and dependent on a passing wave of revolutionary enthusiasm, a desire to participate in the defense against pogroms, and—in some cases—a desire to ingratiate oneself among the seemingly ascendent power in Russia. Some of the party’s greatest luminaries left the Bund during this period, including Arkadi Kremer, the man seen as the father of the party; one-time Central Committee members Dovid Katz and Tsivia Hurvits; propagandist and party pioneer Shmuel Gozhansky; and founding congress attendee Maria Zhaludskaiia. 20 20 Levin, While Messiah Tarried, 131. Kremer remained somewhat affiliated with the party, though his role seems to have been limited to the occasional article or appearance. By the Bund’s 8th Congress in October 1910, the Bund could only count 609 members and nine organizations. 21 21 Bernard K. Johnpoll, The Politics of Futility: The General Jewish Workers Bund of Poland, 1917-1943 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 34. Of those organizations, only six—Pinsk, Homel, Bobroisk, Grodno, Lodz, and Riga—were considered secure. 22 22 A. Litvak, Vos Geven: Etyuden un Zikhrones, (Wilno: Vilner Farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1925), 271.

Desperate to assure its own survival, the Bund changed tactics. In 1905, the Bund, then aligned (at times contentiously) with the Bolsheviks, had emphasized the political struggle against the Tsarist regime above all else. In 1910, the Bund shifted tactics toward the improvement of working conditions. In many ways this represented a throwback to the Bund’s early years a decade prior, when the party saw the struggle for material improvements—higher wages, expanded sick funds, safer working conditions, and so on— as a means to radicalize the politics of Jewish workers. In the early 1900s, this policy led the Bund to rapid growth, and it did so again ten years later. 23 23 ibid., 272. In 1912, the massacre of striking gold miners on the banks of the Lena River in Siberia—workers literally shot dead to satisfy a hunger for gold—breathed new life into Russia’s radical movements, driving the Bund’s membership back up to approximately 30,000. 24 24 Litvak, Geklibene Shriftn, 273, 412; Zvi Y. Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Sections of the CPSU, 1917-1930 (Princeton, 1972), 55. Much of the growth occurred in the Bund’s traditional heartland as organizations were rebuilt in cities such as Vilna, Warsaw, and Białystok. 25 25 Litvak, Vos Geven, 274. However, the Bund grew in Ukraine too, where the party would claim between 3,000 and 4,000 members on the eve of World War One. 26 26 Arye Gelbard, Be-Se’arat ha-Yamim: Ha-‘Bund” Ha-Rusi be-Etot Mahapkha (Tel Aviv: Ha-Makhon Le-Haker Ha Tefusot, University of Tel Aviv, 1987), 173.

The outbreak of war in 1914, however, put the Bund back into survival mode. The upsurge of passionate wartime patriotism eroded support for revolutionary parties, even among Russian Jews. 27 27 ibid., 31. As the war proceeded, the Russian government enacted new restrictions in the name of protecting the war effort, including a ban on publishing in the Hebrew alphabet that greatly reduced the ability of the Bund to engage with its members through Yiddish printed materials. 28 28 ibid., 32. Shortages and rationing further limited the Bund’s activities, as did the conscription of activists into the Russian Army. 29 29 Arye Gelbard, Der Jüdischer Arbeiter-Bund Russlands in Revolutionsjahr 1917 (Vienna: Europoverlag, 1982), 159-60. German advances cut off Poland from Russia, effectively turning the Warsaw and Łodz organizations into a separate party; by 1916, the Russian Bund would state categorically that, despite enduring sentiments of comradery, the Polish and Russian Bunds “were not organizationally united.” 30 30 M. G. Rafes, Dva Goda Revoliutsii na Ukraine (Evoliutsiia i Raskol Bunda), (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo, 1920), 24-5; “Izveshchenie o Soveshchanii Pri Tsentralnom Komitet Bunda,” Biuleten Zagranichnago Komitet Bunda, September 1916. Still, Russia remained a viable arena for political work. A 1915 meeting of the Bund held in Kyiv included delegates from organizations in Kyiv, Odessa, Ekaterinoslav, Kharkov, Berdychev, and Zhitomir, demonstrating the Bund’s continued shift away from Belarus and toward Ukraine. 31 31 M. Rafes, Kapitlen Geshikhte fun Bund (Kyiv: Kultur Lige, 1929), 209. Indeed, when the Bund held a meeting of its Russian organizations in 1916, it counted delegates from Minsk, Kyiv, Homel, Kharkov, Kremenchuk, Ekatarinoslav, and Petrograd, in addition to organizations in Vitebsk, Bobroisk, and Moscow who were not able to attend. 32 32 “Izveshchenie o Soveshchanii Pri Tsentralnom Komitet Bunda,” Biuleten Zagranichnago Komitet Bunda, September 1916. Of these ten organizations, four (Kyiv, Kharkov, Kremenchuk, Ekatarinoslav), were in Ukraine, four in the “Northwestern” territories (Minsk, Homel,Vitebsk, Bobroysk), and two in Russia (Petrograd and Moscow). To my knowledge, no firm numbers exist regarding party membership during World War I. However, the plunging number of Bund organizations—ten, down from dozens just a few years prior—demonstrates a party struggling, if not as badly as during the crisis of 1910. Moreover, these organizations’ location reveals a party in the midst of a geographic transformation, moving out of its cradle in the Northeast and into Ukraine, where the Bund had long had a smaller presence.

In 1917, the outbreak of revolution abruptly revitalized the Bund—just as in 1905—and accelerated its southern expansion. Bundist activist Moshe Rafes recalled that of the Bund’s “eight to ten small, locked-down party organizations,” most were “in the west and southwest region of [the Russian Empire], particularly in eastern Ukraine,” with the regions surrounding Kharkov and Ekaterinoslav particularly prominent. 33 33 Rafes, Kapitlen Geshikhte fun Bund, 217. By the end of March 1917—one month after Nicholas II abdicated—the Bund claimed 37 local organizations and approximately 20,000 members. 34 34“Pismo A. I. Vainshteina Zagranichnomu Komitetu Bunda,” April 16 (29), 1917, RGASPI f. 271, o. 1, d. 489, ll. 1-7. By summer, the party would claim over 30,000 members. Surprisingly, approximately half the Bund’s members—some 16,000 in 62 local organizations—would be drawn from Ukraine. 35 35 Gelbard, Der Jüdischer Arbeiter-Bund Russlands, 96; R. Abramovitch, In Tsvey Revolutsies, 126; Aronson, Di Geshikhte fun Bund, v. 3, 159. The Bund’s historic heartland, in the Northwestern territories, contributed another 13,700 members, while the remainder were drawn from organizations in Petrograd, Moscow, and the Russian interior. 36 36 Gelbard, Be-Se’arat ha-Yamim, 275.

Many Bundists, haunted by the party’s collapse after 1905, were dismayed by the party’s rapid growth, fearing the new recruits were insincere. Raphael Abramovitch, one of the party’s leading figures, worried that “together with the flow of honest and principled” individuals, some new members were mere “profit seekers” hoping to install themselves in the ascendant revolutionary movement. 37 37 Abramovitch, In Tsvey Revolutsies, 45. Sara Fuks, a rising star of the party in Ukraine, expressed a similar sentiment. 38 38 Zvi Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics: The Jewish Section of the CPSU (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 89. Litvak scornfully noted that many of those who joined the party in 1917 were in fact rejoining it, having abandoned the Bund after 1905. These he scornfully dismissed as “cynics,” noting that “a cynic is much worse than a coward.” 39 39 Litvak, Vos Geven, 252.

1917 proved a tumultuous year for the Bund, as for Russia. On one hand, it saw Bundists achieve unheralded influence in the Russian government, laying much of the groundwork for the reconstruction of Russia into a union of nationally defined, socialist republics. 40 40Ha-Ratsto shel Liber be-Shealah ha-Leumit be-Sektsiyah le-Shealah ha-Leumit shel ha-Vaidah ha-Kol-Rusit ha-Rishonah shel ha-Sovyetim,” June 20, 1917, in Gelbard, Ha-“Bund” ha-Rusi bi-Shenat ha-Mahpekhot 1917, 60-62; Neomo shel Abramovich,” in Gelbard, Ha-“Bund” ha-Rusi bi-Shenat ha-Mahpekhot 1917, 65. Yet this would not last. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 would effectively dismantle the Russian Bund as Ukraine and Belarus were carved off as puppet states of the Central Powers; as they became independent, the Bundist organizations in those territories became functionally separate as well. As Aron Vaynshteyn, arguably the Bund’s central personality during the Russian Revolution, lamented, “our great family is now torn apart, separated. Each piece has its own center, its own head committee.” Though a Central Committee formally endured, this was only “a symbol of… unity” and not an authoritative institution. 41 41 “Tsu di Vilne Haverim,” Unzer Shtimme, December 10, 1918. Party leaders hoped for a reunion, as the territories were reunited under the Soviet authorities, but instead, a second split occurred, this time along ideological lines. A majority of Bundists, including many of the party leaders, aligned with the Communist regime, while many of their opponents split off to form a Social-Democratic Bund. 42 42 Abramovitch, In Tsvey Revolutsies, 316-18; M. G. Rafes, Dva Goda Revoliutsii na Ukraine (Evoliutsiia i Raskol Bunda), (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo, 1920), 104; M. Rafes, “Jewish Bolsheviki in Russia,” in L’Internationale Communiste, Moscow and Petrograd, April 1920. Printed in The Living Age (1897-1941), November 13, 1920, pp. 402; “Di Yidishe Arbeter Bavegung in Datn 1876-1922,” in 25 Yor: Zamlbukh (Warsaw: Di Welt, 1922), 119; Aryeh Gelbard, Sofo shelo ke-tekhilato: Ktso shel ha-Bund ha-Rusi (Tel Aviv: University of Tel Aviv, 1995), 153-4. The Communist Bund would be absorbed into the Russian Communist Party in 1920, their opponents liquidated in 1921.

The Bund would survive in Poland and even achieve success, though not for some time. The Polish Bund entered the interwar period fiercely divided in its attitude toward the Soviet Union. The Bund’s leadership remained generally hostile to Communism, but many of the Bund’s members were caught up in the excitement surrounding the revolution, forcing the party to tread lightly on the issue. In fact, the party’s unwillingness to oppose the Communists outright led one leader, the vaunted Vladimir Medem, to abandon the party and emigrate to America. Even so, the Polish Bund split as its more radical elements formed the Communist Bund and joined the Communist International. Joining the two Polish Bunds was a third Bund, the Bund Social Democrats, made up of anti-Communist members of the Russian Bund who found themselves on the Polish side of the border following the Polish-Soviet War in 1921. Centered in Vilna, they viewed the Polish Bund with suspicion for its continuing hesitancy to oppose the Communists outright. Eventually, the Communist Bund would be absorbed into the Polish Communist Party while the Bund Social Democrats would merge with the Polish Bund. 43 43 Bernard K. Johnpoll, The Politics of Futility: The General Jewish Workers Bund of Poland, 1917-1943 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 104-6. Still, it was not until 1936 that the Bund began to play a major role in Polish politics, and even then, it was restricted to local politics, primarily in Warsaw and Łodz. 44 44 Antony Polonsky, “The New Jewish Politics and its Discontents,” in The Emergence of Modern Jewish Politics: Bundism and Zionism in Eastern Europe, Zvi Gitelman, ed., (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 36; Antony Polonsky, “The Bund in Polish Political Life, 1935-1939,” in Essential Papers on Jews and the Left, Ezra Mendelssohn, ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 182-3. Two years later, the party would finally break through on the national level, claiming an estimated 38% of the votes cast for Jewish parties in the municipal elections of December 1938-January 1939. The Zionists, their rivals, claimed 39%, but this was split between two parties—a general list that won 36% and the Left-Poalei Zion, a small faction that hoped to build a Yiddish-speaking society in Palestine ruled by workers’ councils, which won 3%. The Bund was the most popular party, but Zionism remained the most popular idea, with neither possessing a commanding lead. Interestingly, Bundist support remained concentrated in the same places it had historically come from: Warsaw and Łodz, and the belt of Litvak cities in eastern Poland, such as Vilna and Białystok. In these cities the Bund often won over 60% of the vote, while it did rather poorly elsewhere. In Lvov, the third largest city in Poland, the Bund did not even compete, while in Krakow, the fourth largest, it won only 15%. 45 45 Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939 (New York: Moulton Publishers, 1983), 468. The extent to which the Bund could have expanded its presence outside of its core regions remains one of the great questions of Jewish history. Less than one year later, Germany would invade Poland, leading to the annihilation of Polish Jewry and rendering such questions unanswerable.

This is not a complete history of the Bund. You could, if you were so lucky, spend a lifetime exploring history of the party, its ideas, and its impact. The party reimagined the possibilities for Jewish life in Eastern Europe to an unrivaled degree, transformed the possibilities of expression in Yiddish, and transformed the economic realities of Russian and Polish Jewries. But looking at the ebbs and flows of the Bund’s membership alongside its rivals’ reveals the landscape of Eastern European Jewish politics, a world where justified caution clashed with bold dreams and regional differences contradicted any notion of political homogeneity. In the early twentieth century, Russian Jewry demonstrated a flexibility and fluidity that cannot be understated. It was a world where a party could, over the course of a few years, find itself both at the pinnacle of its success and in near-extinction as Russian Jews desperately sought a solution to their troubles.

Meyers, Joshua . “The Bund by the Numbers: The Ebbs and Flows of a Jewish Radical Party.” In geveb, May 2020:
Meyers, Joshua . “The Bund by the Numbers: The Ebbs and Flows of a Jewish Radical Party.” In geveb (May 2020): Accessed Jun 03, 2020.


Joshua Meyers

Joshua Meyers is a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica at Harvard University.